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Top-notch ballet made easy

Stewart Oksenhorn

Building a top-notch ballet company should not be as easy as the Aspen Ballet Company has made it seem.

It should be especially difficult to create that dance company in a small town, out of a dance school whose specialty had been an annual all-ages production of “The Nutcracker,” and to do it all in a matter of a couple of years.

But the performances by Aspen Ballet over the past two nights at the Wheeler Opera House have proved that, yes, Aspen Ballet is a top-notch company. It is also a troupe that continues to improve, is forging its own identity, and whose following grows with each presentation in town. (For proof of this latter observation, I submit one Aspen Times staff member – a bluegrass musician by night, no less – dragged to his first ballet performance in a decade by his visiting mother. Even he came to work this morning, stunned, raving about the first-night performance.)

Most of all, the resounding response to these two performances, both sellouts, is proof of the vision, dedication and sheer talent of three members of the Aspen community – Aspen Ballet founding executive director Bebe Schweppe, and co-artistic directors Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker. Above all, Aspen Ballet seems well-guided. The company is creating a personality of its own; the choice of repertoire is imaginative and daring.

The latest program started on a light note with “Who Cares?” a series of pas de deux and solo pieces choreographed by George Balanchine and set to the music of George Gershwin. Brooke Klinger and Seth DelGrasso both gave outstanding performances in the piece, but “Who Cares?” was simply a warm-up for hotter things to come.

Miami City Ballet choreographer Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros’ “Purple Bend-I” was an inspired choice. The two-woman piece, danced by Marissa Mackel and Angela Rogers and set to Samuel Barber’s much-admired “Adagio for Strings,” was modern but accessible, complex but not confused. The dance is filled with unusual, eye-catching steps and the two women were locked in to one another, giving the piece the tension it requires. Local artist Betty Weiss’ painting gave the piece a dramatic backdrop.

Both “Who Cares?” and “Purple Bend-I” were premieres for the Aspen Ballet Company.

An encore performance of a pas de deux from Dwight Rhoden’s “Black + White” was a star turn for both Dawn Kopf and Brian McSween. Kopf, in particular, is a star in the making, not the least because she is an Aspen native and a product of the Aspen Ballet School. She radiates personality, energy and grace in her every move, and does so with a self-assurance that is captivating.

Another encore, Vicente Nebrada’s “Batucada Fantastica,” closed the show on a high note. Performed by the entire company, the piece is a celebration of South American rhythm and color, evoking the Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro. The piece is long, but never feels long-winded, thanks to the variety of personalities that are allowed to shine in the piece. Patrick Thompson, under-used through the program, gives a wonderful, almost comic performance; Klinger again stands out.

In just over two years time, the team of Schweppe, Malaty and Mossbrucker – and the whole Aspen Ballet company and staff – has built not just a bright future, but a remarkable present.


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